The Race to Govern Ohio

by Matt A. Mayer

Pres. Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden have extensively traveled to counties that Ohio governor Ted Strickland must carry by large margins to get reelected. As an article from the news bureau of my organization, the Buckeye Institute, notes:

With sagging poll numbers for Obama and Strickland, Presidential and Vice Presidential visits to . . . Ohio are in the few key counties where both Obama and Strickland ran up huge margins of victory in 2006 and 2008. Specifically, in Cuyahoga, Franklin, Hamilton, Lorain, Lucas, Mahoning, Montgomery, Trumbull, and Wood counties, Obama and Strickland both amassed nearly 600,000 more votes than their Republican opponents.

Those huge margins of victory proved crucial to Obama’s 2008 victory, as he lost the rest of Ohio by roughly 300,000 votes. . . . Strickland’s vote advantage in those nine counties equated to almost 60% of his eventual victory of nearly 1,000,000 votes in 2006.

Trying to gain large margins in the big counties in Ohio is a very high-risk, high-reward strategy, but the numbers do give Strickland a reason to believe.

To get an idea of the margins that Strickland and his Republican opponent, John Kasich, might hope to get in each county, I took a look at the vote totals from the statewide elections that took place between 1998 and 2008. Leaving aside Hamilton County (Cincinnati) for the moment, if one adds together the biggest margins that Republicans have earned in their strongest 16 counties, the total is over 308,000 votes. Adding the largest margins of victory for the other 52 Republican counties results in a vote advantage of roughly 563,000 votes.

In contrast, the largest margins of victory in the 16 strongest Democrat counties total more than 773,000 votes. All 16 of those large margins happened in 2006. Giving Strickland the record votes from the other three Democrat counties pushes his total to just over 784,000 votes.

These numbers show that Strickland’s margins are much more concentrated geographically — in Ohio, Democrats win by gaining huge margins in a select few counties, whereas Republican-leaning constituencies are spread across the state. So, for Democrats, presidential visits in left-leaning strongholds can help build up large margins; the challenge Republican candidates have in Ohio is that most of the Republican-leaning counties contain few opportunities to build up a significant lead.

With Kasich showing strong in the polls and the Right gaining ground nationally, getting close to or surpassing the record margin in Republican counties — again, 563,000 — is easily doable. By contrast, with poll numbers sinking and a depressed Left, Strickland won’t get close to the Democrats’ 2006 record haul. But then again, that doesn’t need to happen for Strickland to win. He can lose roughly 28 percent of the record margins that he racked up in 2006 and still overcome the current Republican record. For example, he doesn’t need to win Cuyahoga County by 228,000 votes again; rather, he just needs to win it by 164,000. The key question is, How steep will his losses from 2006 be?

The curve ball in all of this is Hamilton County (Cincinnati). In 2006, Strickland lost that county to hometown son Ken Blackwell by 1,900 votes. In 1998, Blackwell, in his race for secretary of state, won Hamilton County by almost 116,000 votes — a record. Yet, in 2008, Obama carried Hamilton County by nearly 30,000 votes. So, which Hamilton County will show-up this November? Republican U.S. Senate candidate and long-time southwest-Ohio resident Rob Portman’s presence on the ballot should help the Kasich campaign. Additionally, the real strength of Ohio’s tea-party movement is in southwest Ohio, so the ability of that movement to translate its passion into votes may determine the outcome of Ohio’s governor’s race.

Based on this analysis, expect more trips by Obama and Biden to Cincinnati, Dayton, Columbus, Toledo, and Cleveland, and maybe a stop or two by the Clintons to Akron, Canton, Toledo, and Dayton. Also expect Strickland to cut his losses in most of Ohio and focus his ground game on the roughly 16 counties that swept him to victory four years ago. The labor unions will follow a similar strategy with their get-out-the-vote efforts. Strickland’s plan likely won’t work, but who in 2002 would have thought an obscure state senator from Illinois would win the presidency just six years later?

– Matt A. Mayer is president of the Buckeye Institute.

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